Misty Copeland captured the world’s attention this summer when she became the first black female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. In late August, Copeland will once again be in the headlines when she stars in Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town for a limited engagement at New York’s Lyric Theatre, where she will bring the show’s nearly year-long run to a close. There, she will be joining a different sort of racial history from that of classical ballet. When On the Town debuted towards the end of World War II, its original production featured a mixed-race cast and progressive interracial staging, which directly challenged real-world segregation.
Copeland’s successes are heartening, yet they are taking place some seventy years after the breakthroughs of On the Town. Here we are, decades later, still celebrating racial “firsts” in the realm of high-profile performance.
In On the Town, Misty Copeland will take the lead role of “Ivy Smith,” which in 1944 was danced by the Japanese-American ballerina Sono Osato. It was an audacious casting choice that confronted historic exclusions; very few Asian Americans had previously been cast in leading roles on Broadway (Anna May Wong was the main exception). Furthermore, the United States was at war with Japan, and public discourse routinely vilified the Japanese. At a personal level, the FBI had interned Osato’s father as an “enemy alien.” As with most Japanese-American detainees at the time, Shoji Osato was held with no evidence whatsoever of subversive activity.
The original On the Town also included six African Americans out of a total cast of sixty. This ratio was not remarkable in those days. Rather, it was the actions on stage that made the difference. Black and white performers mingled to represent a multiracial Navy, which countered the segregated military of World War II. White women danced with black men, which transgressed an absolute social taboo in an era when anti-miscegenation laws were still enforced in many states. In addition to this radical onstage integration, a black violinist named Everett Lee was appointed concertmaster of the otherwise all-white pit orchestra. Nine months into the run, Lee became Music Director, which marked a racial milestone. These racial details might seem fussy or even minor to us today, but they were largely unheard of during World War II, when segregation continued to define American life.
On the Town also marked the Broadway debut of the composer Leonard Bernstein, whose passionate advocacy for civil rights became a lifelong commitment. Bernstein consistently featured African-American performers over the course of his illustrious career, whether the black pianist André Watts in a Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1963 or the choreographer Alvin Ailey in Bernstein’s Mass a decade later.
Misty Copeland certainly dances in a different world from Sono Osato. But hailing her promotion with American Ballet Theatre as a “first” feels a bit like déjà vu. This time, let’s hope that the achievements of a stunning dancer of color will set a precedent, opening the door so that mixed-race performances are no longer an exception but instead a regular component of everyday casting in both Broadway musicals and classical ballet.
Featured image: The cast of On The Town. (c) On the Town via onthetownbroadway.com.